Sherman on war

by John Quiggin on August 8, 2007

Not so long ago, in a discussion on Iraq the question came up of what various people would have predicted at the outset of the US Civil War. It seemed to me that all with the possible exception of Sherman, would have grossly underestimated the length and bloodiness of the war, and that all would have predicted easy victory for their side. Of course, rather than speculate, I should have checked Wikipedia. Fortunately, William Tecumseh Sherman was the featured article yesterday, and includes Sherman’s judgement.

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!

Sherman continued, with an accurate analysis of the eventual outcome

You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it …

Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors.

You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

More famous, and even more appropriate today is his statement at the end of the war

I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.

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Food for Thought « The Hollow Horn
08.08.07 at 11:12 pm

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1

stuart 08.08.07 at 11:48 am

Of course as it also notes, if you say stuff like that, you are called crazy at that time. I guess that’s patriotism and blind loyalty to nations/causes that can be bred and drilled into the majority of people, such that an honest appraisal of the likely outcome is considered nuts or unpatriotic.

2

bryan 08.08.07 at 12:14 pm

so this sherman guy? crazy liberal traitor or what?

3

Jim 08.08.07 at 12:33 pm

One thing that makes me angry is to confuse the leadership, which has control of the armed forces, means of communication and the economy with the people.

The leadership of the pre civil war South were completely in charge. The Phrase “Rich man war, poor man fight’ came from the Southern people.

The war came to an end, when Sherman destroyed the property of the rich.

Were I the leader of an enemy of the US, I’d start by bombing the Hamptons. The ancient style imperialism included removing the top 10% and moving them elsewhere and seemed very effective at pacifying an area.

4

Tim Worstall 08.08.07 at 12:38 pm

Slightly off subject I know but….was there a General in 1914 who was saying the same things?

5

Barry 08.08.07 at 12:57 pm

One obvious thing from a quick perusal of those comments – ‘Armed Liberal’ is quite the dishonest guy. He repeatedly sets up a strawman interpretation (putting it kindly) of somebody’s position, and then challenging them to defend that position.

6

Minivet 08.08.07 at 12:58 pm

The 2nd quote is nice, and probably aligns with Sherman’s thinking, but even though I found it quoted in a biography per Wikipedia’s citation, I do wonder if it hasn’t been tidied up. It jibes a little too perfectly with the post-war consensus on why the North won for my tastes.

7

Chris Williams 08.08.07 at 1:02 pm

Tim – off the cuff, Kitchener came closest. While everyone else was talking ‘over by Christmas’, he put together the mass armies for 1916. Not sure if he shared Sherman’s feelings about bloodiness.

OTOH, the US civil war is one of the few wars I can think of in which one side was worthy of support.

8

MattF 08.08.07 at 1:36 pm

I think it’s safe to assume that the Mexican War veterans (e.g., Grant, Lee, etc.) had a good idea of what a civil war would be like… And, btw, anyone who hasn’t read Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs should go out and get them and read them, right now. Both are available in the ‘Library of America’ series

9

franck 08.08.07 at 1:49 pm

This quote is particularly interesting because Sherman really understood the South. He had taught at a Louisiana military academy since 1859 and knew what was going on.

I think he gets so much abuse in the South because he really rubbed the South’s faces in what the war they started meant. He contributed personally a huge amount to the Union victory and ending the war.

10

Timothy Burke 08.08.07 at 2:11 pm

I hadn’t ever seen this quote before. Kind of amazing.

11

Barry 08.08.07 at 2:27 pm

“I think he gets so much abuse in the South because he really rubbed the South’s faces in what the war they started meant. He contributed personally a huge amount to the Union victory and ending the war.”

Posted by franck

He took the war home to them, and as somebody above said, took the war home to the slave-owners.

12

Barry 08.08.07 at 2:31 pm

From Sherman, in the original article: “Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors.

You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. “

Interesting commentary on the role of morale in warfare. In some discussion of the US method of fighting wars (I can’t remember where), it was pointed out that the US prevailed in all big wars by getting beaten in the beginning, but then learning to fight, and piling on huge quantities of material, personnel, technology and the ability to apply this (logistics). Morale was something for our enemies to have, until we broke it with raw material force.

13

Anderson 08.08.07 at 2:45 pm

“Appliances of War” is a great band name, ripe for the plucking.

14

LizardBreath 08.08.07 at 3:15 pm

Is there a good source somewhere for civilian casualties as a result of Sherman’s March? It gets referred to as a historic atrocity, and I’ve never been sure how much of that was related to deaths rather than property damage.

15

tveb 08.08.07 at 3:25 pm

In response to #4, I think you mean Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler (USMC), “War is a Racket” (but he was not saying the exact same tings):
http://www.lexrex.com/enlightened/articles/warisaracket.htm

16

fred lapides 08.08.07 at 3:56 pm

Southerners do not refer to “the civil war.” It is called the late Northern aggression.If you take a chariot tour of the wealthy homes along the water in Charleston, S.C., you will be told about the white picket fences. At the base of these fences, metal lined. The fences were made of metal but this was taken down and used to make war materials. White wooden pickets replaced the metal. The fences now represent a “badge of honor.” But this also indicates what Sherman noted: the South had not the materials or capabilities to fight a prolonged war against the North.

17

franck 08.08.07 at 4:19 pm

fred,

My Southern forefathers fought in every war from the Revolutionary War onwards to at least the Korean War, and everyone in my family always called it the Civil War.

lizardbreath,

Direct civilian casualties were quite low. It was mostly widespread property damage. In fact, the size of Sherman’s army _grew_ as he marched to the sea and into the Carolinas. Many people in the civilian population wanted to join up with his army, and not all of them were escaped slaves.

18

dominic 08.08.07 at 4:25 pm

re 14: I don’t know about civilian casualties for Sherman’s march, but there are no famous stories of massacres, which would doubtless have been broadcast far and wide by the confederates has they been able to find any. Sherman’s men never did anything quite as disgusting as Lee’s army, who rounded up free blacks in Maryland and Pennsylvania and sent them south to be enslaved.

James Loewen reports that Sherman’s army actually grew in size during the march – despite receiving no reinforcements – because of all the citizens of the confederacy who enlisted. This might have been because they’d been loyal to the union all along, but maybe they just wanted to back a winner.

19

Gdr 08.08.07 at 4:47 pm

From Sherman’s letter to the City Council of Atlanta on 12 September 1864 (reprinted in vol III of his memoirs):

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. …Now that war comes home to you; you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.

(But Sherman was unable to extend the same magnanimity to the Kiowas, Comanche, Lakotas and other nations of Plains Indians against whom he directed a much more deadly campaign than the one he directed against the Confederacy.)

20

dave heasman 08.08.07 at 5:05 pm

“Southerners do not refer to “the civil war.” It is called the late Northern aggression”

I thought it was “the recent unpleasantness”.

21

MattF 08.08.07 at 5:39 pm

The giveaway phrase I’ve heard from some Southerners is “the war between the states”.

22

Joel Turnipseed 08.08.07 at 5:40 pm

re: #4, #15 — big difference between Sherman in Civil War and Butler in WWI is that Butler really wanted a big war–to prove himself in something bigger than the little bush wars he’d been fighting in the PI, Nicaragua, Haiti, etcetera. Butler’s anti-war feelings didn’t become public until after the 1932 Bonus March, and not really vicious until after the 1934 Nye Committee Hearings (and the 1934 HUAC “Wall Street Plot” Hearings, after which he wrote “War is a Racket”).

23

Michael Kiley 08.08.07 at 5:46 pm

I also cruised by Wiki yesterday and refreshed on Sherman. What I always remember about him was his unusual class based analysis of the war and his conscious use of it in his military tactics. In burning Southern assets he took care to burn the plantations of the elites that had started the war and showed repeated mercy for the poor villeins of the South that had been the victims of both the ancien regime and their disastrous secession. That it is the ancestors of those serfs that aggressively fly the Stars and Bars today is unfathomable.

24

Shelby 08.08.07 at 6:26 pm

Michael Kiley: Presumably “descendants” not “ancestors”. And not particularly unfathomable if you apply pop-psych truisms regarding either solidarity in defeat, or abusive relationships. Not that I’m particularly a fan of pop-psych truisms.

25

Anderson 08.08.07 at 6:52 pm

The giveaway phrase I’ve heard from some Southerners is “the war between the states”.

That’s the more usual alternative; anyone who calls it “the War of Northern Aggression” has been absorbing some revisionist accounts.

But the only time I ever hear “War Between the States” in conversation is jokingly, even from my conservative colleagues.

26

Tedd McHenry 08.08.07 at 8:21 pm

Sherman’s comments will also prove prescient in the present Iraq war if, as in the U.S. civil war, the side fighting for liberty and justice — with superior technology and material resources on its side — prevails.

27

eugene murphy 08.08.07 at 8:37 pm

i recall the narrator of a lone ranger episode on the radio – circa late ’40’s – speaking of the war between the states.

28

Watson Aname 08.08.07 at 9:23 pm

Tedd: False premise, so Sherman’s comments don’t enter into it.

29

Ben Alpers 08.08.07 at 9:52 pm

IIRC, back in the late 1980s (when last I was there), the South Carolina state archives officially referred to it as “The Confederate War.”

30

snuh 08.09.07 at 12:35 am

naturally there is a wikipedia article about this.

31

Ragout 08.09.07 at 5:29 am

I’ve got to agree with the earlier posters who expressed skepticism about this quote. Apparently Sherman was quoted from memory by a pro-Confederate friend, years after the war. The fact that Sherman’s friend (David Boyd French) was a Southerner helps to explain why this quote gives such a pro-Confederate view of history.

In reality, the North won the Civil War because of superior leadership and because its people were more committed to the fight. The North’s material superiority didn’t guarantee victory any more than US material superiority guarantees a happy outcome in Iraq.

32

John Quiggin 08.09.07 at 6:13 am

It seems very strange to say that Sherman’s quote gives a pro-Confederate view of history. It says that the South was doomed to failure from the start, and that embarking on such a venture was criminal lunacy.

To take the obvious parallel, the view that the Iraq war failed because of incompetent leadership is held by lots of people who supported the war. The Shermanesque position, that invading a foreign country whose inhabitants have no particular reason to love you is a recipe for disaster, however noble your own view of your intentions, is pretty much confined to those who opposed the war from the start.

That said, I’m perfectly happy to believe that the quote isn’t entirely accurate. Still, I think it’s clear that Sherman, unlike nearly everyone else, predicted a long and bloody war in which all parties would end up worse off than if the South had accepted the outcome of the 1860 election. That view is consistent with everything he did and said subsequently.

33

HTML Mencken 08.09.07 at 9:05 am

James Loewen reports that Sherman’s army actually grew in size during the march – despite receiving no reinforcements – because of all the citizens of the confederacy who enlisted. This might have been because they’d been loyal to the union all along, but maybe they just wanted to back a winner.

Or perhaps because they wanted something to eat.

Have neoconfederates so poisoned the argument that the Left thinks it must in reaction make a saint of *any* Northerner?

In point of fact — or, considerably less confidently, from my memory — Sherman’s recommended solution to the problem of the Southern Aristocracy was final, down to the last child, I think he wrote to Grant. Of course slavery was morally abominable, and I believe in the old (when he was a socialist) Genovese verdict that the Southern system was never going to change no matter how inefficient it was. But is it enough to excuse Sherman’s genocidal sentiments? And even if you can, because the Southerners deserved it, can you then excuse Sherman for applying the same formula to the Sioux? Surely they didn’t deserve it; surely they were victims of a man (and his pal, Sheridan) who had honed his wrath to a fine point *somewhere*.

Could everyone please believe in the moral cause of the North without canonizing wicked historical figures who happened to fight for the North?

34

Brian 08.09.07 at 11:53 am

I think it’s safe to assume that the Mexican War veterans (e.g., Grant, Lee, etc.) had a good idea of what a civil war would be like

MattF,

I happened across a copy of Bruce Catton’s excellent “Grant Heads South” – a history focusing on Grant from his appointment as a Colonel of Volunteers to his appointment as General in Chief of the Army.

Surprisingly, to me, Colonel Grant thought it would be a short war. Drive south, knock some sense into the Rebels, they’d see the futility of it all and that would be that.

Grant – and Sherman, his junior – displayed adaptability when they found out this was not so.

35

Ragout 08.09.07 at 12:35 pm

*It seems very strange to say that Sherman’s quote gives a pro-Confederate view of history. It says that the South was doomed to failure from the start, and that embarking on such a venture was criminal lunacy.*

Ex-Confederates did claim that the South was doomed to failure from the start, but that it was still a glorious “Lost Cause.” For one thing, it was a nice way for Southern generals writing their memoirs to justify their defeat. From this point of view, Southerners weren’t lunatics to start the war, they didn’t start it at all! It was the War of Northern Aggression, with the South resisting the North’s depredations on their liberty.

36

Ragout 08.09.07 at 12:37 pm

Oops, someday I’ll remember that asterisks give bold here, instead of italics.

37

John Quiggin 08.09.07 at 9:43 pm

The Mexican War was an easy win for the US against numerically superior forces. If anything, it encouraged the (mostly Southern) military caste in the belief that they would easily defeat a civilian North.

38

BruceR 08.10.07 at 2:43 am

John, re your 38, the Mexican War may have been strategically easy, but for the soldiers who participated it was pretty horrible: the US army had 13,000 dead out of 78,000 participants, a staggering 17% mortality rate… by far the worst of any American war. (By comparison, the South in the Civil War had a aggregate 9% mortality rate). It may have convinced many non-participating southerners that war was a noble pursuit, but it’s hard to find any such indication from the memoirs of the senior military participants who went on to fight for either North or South.

You’re right that the Boyd retelling of Sherman’s opinions on war is supported by other primary sources. Flood cites one prewar letter of his, saying, “All here [in Louisiana] talk as if a dissolution of the Union were not only a possibility but a probability of easy execution. If attempted we will have Civil War of the most horrible kind.”

39

Tedd McHenry 08.10.07 at 3:35 pm

Watson:

Tedd: False premise, so Sherman’s comments don’t enter into it.

Of course, both sides claim to be fighting for liberty and justice, as usual. Yet you knew right away which side I meant.

That’s not surprising because, behind whatever public face one might put forward, we all know that if the U.S. prevails in Iraq the country will have more liberty and justice than it had before. One of the great attributes of liberal democracy is that, notwithstanding any argument-by-motive that might be put forth, no one person or institution has enough power to realize its own vision to the exclusion of others.

40

J. R. 08.10.07 at 6:49 pm

Hi:

I had a teacher back in the 1970s who was fired from Emory back during the civil rights controversy for espousing integration, named Don West.

He was from the north Georgia mountains, and was fond of telling us that there were many in the south who were loyal to the United States all through the war, and named a county in N Ga (sorry, I can’t remember its name now) which flew the stars and stripes throughout the war.

He went on the tell his students that the reason that Tennessee is called the Volunteer State was that more volunteers from TN joined the US army than would have been drafted had TN remained in the Union.

Don hated segregation, and wanted those of us in the border states and the North to understand that there were many, many people in the deep South who hated everything the CSA stood for.

Don’s poetry was (for poetry) best seller stuff, he was a pacifist Christian minister, and he was against war for any reason. Shame we don’t have a few million more like him!

JR in WV

41

tequila 08.10.07 at 10:38 pm

The Southern Unionist story is not one that is widely known, but J.R.’s teacher was broadly correct. No surprise, these Unionist areas broadly correlated with a lack of slave ownership in the white population. Eric Foner has a good section on them in RECONSTRUCTION: AMERICA’S UNFINISHED REVOLUTION.

42

'As You Know' Bob 08.11.07 at 2:18 am

Southerns sometimes call it “The War Between the States”, “the recent unpleasantness” or even “The War of Northern Aggression”.

But in the Deep North, the Civil War is sometimes referred to as “The Slavers’ Revolt”.

43

Michael Kiley 08.13.07 at 10:57 am

Shelby, you are, of course, correct, descendants not ancestors. I’m afraid I’m not much up on my pop-psyche but since I moved to the deep South I’m getting some lessons.

Just yesterday I saw a truck with four different stickers advocating the Stars and Bars ( or Slaves and Graves as a friend calls it ). Since the battle flag was only added to the Georgia flag in the Civil Rights era isn’t this only dog whistle rascism?

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